Best Three Dylan Albums?

I’ve started posting various sorts of lists in this space, inspired partly by Greil Marcus’s collection of columns, Real Life Top Ten, but without Marcus’s hipster edge or focus on popular culture. My knowledge of popular culture is not nearly so wide, nor my taste so inclusive, as Marcus’s, but I know a thing or two about Dylan, not so much as a figure (or personality), but as a poet. People don’t worry much these days about whether or not Dylan is or is not a poet—whether he meets the qualifications—but in my younger days it was a question of some importance, at least to some of us who had begun to see poetry (or all things) as a powerful mode of perception. Dylan himself had clearly thought this—after all, he had dropped in on Carl Sandberg and announced himself, however awkwardly, as a member of the tribe. Later, he seems to have dismissed the question as beside the point, though the songs of his great period are studded with references to poets & poetry.1

I seem to have buried my thesis in a footnote. I’m getting ready to teach Dylan’s songs in my Literature of American Popular Music course2 and since I don’t have more than three or four class periods to cover the territory, I have to decide what to focus on. So just pick my favorite tracks, right? If my students were just young friends in my living room, that would be fine, but even at this late stage of my academic career I feel some compunction to heed the institutional imperatives of the classroom. Well, then, choose Dylan’s “most important” work. But important on what criteria? Historical? Cultural? Musical? I could fake a discussion of the first two; the third would be more of a stretch. In fact, I’d already decided, though I had quite realized it until this morning. It’s a Literature course, as I mentioned above: one of the assumptions behind the course is that at least some songs overlap the domains of the literary. Which means that next week I will teach what I take to be Bob Dylan’s three most literary records. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that all these records are from early in Dylan’s career, but perhaps I’ll be able to fast-forward to a few tracks from Blood on the Tracks & Love and Theft.


Show 2 footnotes

  1. I’d go so far as to suggest that Dylan’s best songs have been written at times when Dylan has conceived of himself, however awkwardly, as a poet—or, perhaps, self-consciously, as an artist.
  2. I don’t presume to teach “popular culture,” but only its “literature.”

Nothing If Not Eclectic

Two CDs I ordered came in the mail today, Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart and The Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir. I got the monks for meditation–it’s extremely low frequency chanting in very slow rhythm that I find very soothing. This particular recording was made by Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead’s drummer, and is exquisitely recorded with a tremendous feeling of presence. The chants are in fact prayers and the monks believe that if a listener attends to them the prayers will find their way to thedeitiesto which they are addressed. The Dylan Christmas record struck me as such a weird concept when it showed up in my Amazon recommendations that I preordered it. I’ve only listened to it once, but it’s not what you might think. Dylan mostly plays it straight, though the first track, “Here comes Santa Claus,” sounds like your eccentric uncle on Christmas Eve after he’s had a few. But then you realize your uncle can sing. There is also a strangely compelling and heartfelt version of the hymn “Hark The Harald Angels Sing.” The record also contains my least favorite song in the world (Christmas or otherwise), the smarmy “Little Drummer Boy,” which I could tell even as a kid was a sentimental, emotionally manipulative piece of crap. I confess I went out of the room and did something else when it came on this afternoon, so I only heard it from a distance. I’ll update this post after another listen or two.

I’ll Stand Over Your Grave Till I’m Sure that You’re Dead

There are reports that Robert McNamara, perhaps the most morally compromised member of the Johnson administration, has died at 93. I’ll be listening to Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” later this morning as a memorial. The best brief account you’re likely to find of McNamara’s life is Paul Hendrickson’s The Living and the Dead, which begins with an account of McNamara’s upbringing, then tells the stories of five Americans whose lives were exploded by McNamara’s policies in Vietnam. [More informationon on McNamara here; Charlie Rose interview with Hendrickson; Errol Morris’s film about McNamara, The Fog of War.]